Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Why Sciences Cannot Provide the Whole Truth

In comments to my blog on the theory of evolution and religion, it was suggested that this theory is seriously flawed but that advocates of the theory of evolution nevertheless have "faith" in it. The notion that the theory of evolution is seriously flawed gets a "Duh!" response. Of course it is. All historically grounded theories are flawed by a lack of critical data and this would be especially true of a theory that covers millions of years. Moreover every scientific theory is flawed to a point that having "faith" in any such theory in the sense Christians use the word "faith" when they speak of having faith in the truth of the Bible would be an unwarranted position to take.

There is a faith scientists typically have that research done along certain lines within the framework of some theory will result in valuable insights but that is not the same as having faith that that theory is true. And scientists and engineers and others routinely rely on results in physics in various applications, which is not the same as believing that these results are true beyond any doubt. At a web site on Celestial Mechanics it is said of a particular definition of Newton's Second Law that "... the definition is logically faulty, but can be realized with great accuracy in practice."

There are good reasons not to place too much faith in any scientific theory. Anyone who has engaged in scientific research has experienced pet hypotheses proving to be false. That alone should lead to a certain amount of skepticism. But their are deeper reasons not to place a great deal of faith in the capital "T" Truth of any scientific theory. (I now will survey some fields in which, in most cases, I have limited or even almost nonexistent expertise so please point out any critical flaws. I apologize also for the length of this blog.)

Uncertainties Associated with Measurement and Experimentation

Heisenberg's Principle of Uncertainty provides a certain insight into the limitations of empirical sciences, according to which, using the language of his 1927 paper
The more precisely the position [of a subatomic particle] is determined, the less precisely the momentum is known in this instant, and vice versa.
In fact, his principle extends to other phenomena -- to any "canonically conjugate" variables. In the case of a moving electron, these pairs of variables are momentum and position, and energy and time.

There seems always to be a certain uncertainty that arises when any event or thing is measured. If one measures the distance between points A and B representing the width of a wall and then measures a board one intends to cut to span that distance there will be an inevitable uncertainty in the accuracy of each measurement. I have done this many times and have never gotten my measurements exactly right. Fortunately, in most cases, the variation in lengths doesn't tend to be greater than a millimeter or so. But there is always going to be an error of this sort. The same appears to be true of the measurement of anything no matter how precise one's measuring instruments are.

Another difficulty with measurement is the problem that the instrument used to measure a phenomenon will normally interfere with it. A simple case of this is the use of a probe inserted from the outside of a container into that container to measure the temperature of what is in the container. I used to try to measure the temperature of coffee beans during roasting them. Inevitably the ambient temperature of the environment the roaster is in will have an effect on the temperature of the beans in the roaster because of the connection of the probe to the area outside the roaster. One can always devise better and better instruments and the conditions under which the beans are roasting to reduce the error but there will always be some error. Fortunately, it is unlikely to affect the flavor of the beans.

Many years ago, I read a number of papers on "the social psychology of the psychological experiment." One such paper exists on the web that quotes the psychologist A. H. Pierce concerning the "compliance" of subjects of psychological experiments as follows:
It is to the highest degree probable that the subject['s] . . . general attitude of mind is that of ready complacency and cheerful willingness to assist the investigator in every possible way by reporting to him those very things which he is most eager to find, and that the very questions of the experimenter . . . suggest the shade of reply expected .... Indeed . . . it seems too often as if the subject were now regarded as a stupid automaton
In fact, it is widely known that experiments on rats are so subject to experimenter bias that it is necessary to do "double blind" experiments in which the person running the experiment does not know the purpose of the experiment -- what it is testing. Double blind experiments are the norm in medical studies, as when a placebo is included along with one or more other drugs, and the person dispensing the drugs does not know which subject of the experiment is getting which kind of pill.

Uncertainties that Result from How We Slice up the Universe to do Science

How scientists slice up the world to study it will have an inevitable effect on the results. The world does not come in what we might call easily identifiable natural units. We are all taught, for instance, that plants and animals are fundamentally different yet they have some important similarities. Plants are like us in that they breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide just as we do, and for the same reason, as is explained in In fact, " just like animals, plant cells must "burn" sugar for energy and to do that they need oxygen." This latter site goes on to say
glucose becomes the basic building block for a bunch of other carbohydrates, such as sucrose, lactose, ribose, cellulose and starch ...[and] in both plants and animals they can be used to make fats, oils, amino acids, and proteins.
Once we make a sharp distinction between plants and animals then we are saddled with the difficulty explaining how it is that both of these very different types of entities should be alike in so fundamental a way (check out this interesting site on respiration across various species of plants and animals. This is the basic conundrum that faces us when we chop up the world into studyable research areas for the purpose of doing science -- we must now explain similarities among things that we are treating as belonging different. Over the years we have chopped up the world in one way to do physics, in another way to do chemistry, and in still another way to do biology. This forced sciences to create bridges between them. The result was physical chemistry, biophysics, and biochemistry. Thus in addition to journals in chemistry, physics, and biology, we also have the Archives of Biochemistry and Biophysics.

For a fairly long time, as I noted in my blog on What is Linguistics?, linguists sharply distinguished the separate subdisciplines of phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics. Immediately this resulted in a need for such bridging fields as morphophonology ("The combinatory phonic modifications of morphemes which happen when they are combined")and morphosyntax ("The part of morphology that covers the relationship between syntax and morphology"). Closer to my own research, we find the division between the study of conventional meaning (semantics) and of how linguistic forms are interpreted in context (pragmatics) not to be as sharp as initially thought.

Uncertainties in Mathematics

I always had believed that mathematics was firmly grounded if only because it was not an empirical science. But, of course, there are proofs of theorems that are later proved to be defective. And there are theorems that have never been proved to be true. A cousin of mine doing graduate work in mathematics was, along with his classmates, given ten problems to work on over a weekend. My cousin and his wife decided to have a picnic on Sunday despite the fact that he had solved none of the problems. He ran into a fellow student at the park and found out that he had solved two problems. It turns out that these ten problems were official "unsolved problems" in mathematics. It seems that one does better work when one doesn't know how difficult a problem is.

Though I had to struggle with it as a philosophy graduate student taking a course on the foundations of mathematics many years ago, I was blown away by a proof by Kurt Godel that efforts of mathematicians and logicians to provide a solid foundation for calculus by "reducing' it to set theory will inevitably fall short because no axiomatization of set theory that can be proved to be consistent can also be proved to be complete and that the converse is true as well. I would imagine that efforts to "reduce" any science to a set of basic hypotheses would be subject to the same problem as one tries to make them ever more explicit and precise.

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Blogger concerned citizen said...

What! I can't believe in mathematics now?
I'm glad to see you define faith for those who don't understand the concepts(?) of it.
I know Christians think I hate them. Not true. It's just that i've been arguing against their fallacys my whole life.
I've never found them to be any wiser, better, more spiritual then any one else.
I've seen alot of foolishness, tho.
Whoops, I got up on a soapbox, I'll stop now.
P.S. why in the world would you want to measure the haet of coffee beans?

10:45 AM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

that was tricky! I fell right into it

10:50 AM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

All i can say is you must Love your coffee.

10:51 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

The cues to how dark a roast is are odor (which goes from that of grass when green, to a traditional coffee odor, to a burnt smell), sound (as beans roast they expand and the steam causing the expansion "cracks" the beans -- there are two cracking stages), and temperature (obviously very dark roasts like French roast are hotter coming out of the roaster than would lighter roasts).

10:51 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Thank you for your overgenerous evaluation. I do have my biases and I hope I make clear what they are. I can't stand right wingers (or left wingers either) and fundamentalists of any kind, but especially of the religious kind. They are dangerous people, as we discover anew practically every day.

11:11 AM

Blogger jo_jo said...

Thanks for bringing up the "faith" issue, LG - after reading this I deduce that religious faith starts with a premise, and scientific faith starts with a hypothesis? Would that be a fair distinction between the two types?

I'm a BSc and couldn't help noticing during my training the huge assumptions that are part of everyday science. It's a great way to look at the world, but like any thought system we are only using it properly when we are aware of its limitations. Thanks for providing a forum for doing just that.

1:08 PM

Blogger The MetaKong said...

Your reference to Pierce's study about research subjects' compliance with psych experimenters reminded me of Stanley Milgrim's shock experiments:

(the exact numbers might be a little hazy here and i apologize b/c i'm under the assumption most of you are familiar with this anyway)

The subjects were told that they were doing a test to determine the effectiveness of shock therapy on the individual's ability to learn a particular thing.

The subjects were given 12 (if i remember correctly) levels of shock to utilize, ranging from 15 volts to something like 450 volts, with labels next to each level describing the effect of such shock...the highest warning of death...

to avoid great detail and an overly lengthy post, something like 67% of all subjects were willing to shock the "learner" at the "death level" of 450 volts because the "authority," the experimenter, told them to do so...

it seems to me that many non-religious types come to exhibit more religious-type behaviors in their everyday life (behaviors like forgiveness, understanding, tolerance, love, etc.) while many religious-type folk are constantly fighting against non-religious types along with their perceived "non-religious" thoughts and behaviors.

it seems the religious types have this insatiable desire to convince non-religious types that they are correct in their assumption, much like scientists seem to have a strong desire to prove their assumptions correct.

the difference comes back to that trait of understanding and tolerance, in that no scientist has sought to punish a non-scientist for not conforming to the scientist's assumption, whereas almost our whole legal system is built upon punishing behaviors under the assumptions that:

1. such outlawed behaviors are "ungodly"

2. punishment will correct such behaviors and compel conformity to assumption #1

outside of behaviors like murder, rape, thievery, and slander, it appears obvious that to label other behaviors as "ungodly" is purely subjective and not likely to convince the perpetrators of such behavior otherwise...

not to mention, and i will, mention that is, that in any number of studies as well as in practical examples like the death penalty, punishment induces rebellion, thereby perpetuating more of the behavior which was punished to begin with...

so, two questions, and a couple or more conjectures:

1. if the best chance of getting a human to exhibit a certain behavior lies in leading by example and positive reinforcement (as opposed to the negative reinforcement of punishment), why would anyone, let alone the religious ones who claim they want us all to be godly, promote more punishment?

2. why is it that non-religious folk (scientists and non-scientists both), as well as religious scientists tend to become something like "truth seekers," and the devout religious types seem content, most of the time, to accept a picture of reality as truth with no future progression while railing against those who seem content to accept that they're not perfect and need more answers?


perhaps most (67% according to milgram's findings) of the religious folk (what is it now, 90% of the world's population are religious folk?) feel as though they are stressfully compelled to action by a higher "authority," God, to punish and impede anything that is perceived to be "ordered" by that higher "authority," regardless of how much distress it brings them or how much pain it inflicts upon the "learner."

perhaps the conflict caused, much like the subjects' conflict while shocking the learner in milgram's experiment, is a conflict between the seemingly illogical demands of a perceived "higher authority" and the seemingly logical conclusions drawn from simple observation of physical existence, which we all agree is undeniable.

perhaps this internal conflict is the cause of neurotic rationalizations that, in psychological terms this state would be described as a nervous disorder that effectively impedes progression, cause the patient or subject to proudly and righteously justify their negative/non-progressive behaviors with destructive results as a result of seeking to obey their internal, mental, "higher authority..."

being that many religious folk are willing to die in an effort to obey God, or, their "higher authority," who tells them that he has given them the "whole Truth," which we all admit science cannot do, i would guess we should be not at all surprised that they are willing to angrily and illogically rationalize any argument that impedes the progress of science, so long as that progress can in any way be interpreted, in physical reality, to go against the commands of the "authority," or experimenter, per se...

the psycholiatrist, as the scientific observer, must objectively analyze both the strictly obedient (roughly 60% of the population overall) perspective and the disobedient/moderately obedient population perspective...

since Hugh, in our last post, took liberty to assume knowledge of subliminal thought, so will i; the strictly obedient think that there is no use for even the attempt to objectively analyze this predicament because their higher authority has commanded them to shock/punish the "learner," in an effort to punish, impede, destroy the "learners" desire to learn anything different than what the authority commands as his true word...in this example, the psychiatrist must be, in some way, punished by the religously obedient unless they want the experiment to fail.

the psychiatrist, who happens to be a religious scientist who falls in the 20% of the population described as religious and moderately obedient, doesn't take too kindly to the punishment inflicted by the strictly obedient and does what many in the population do, rebels and observes the other side anyway.

what he sees is that on this other side, there are people going about the business of seeking the truth of existence through many different means, he sees some employing scientifically accepted ways and means, and he sees some simply floating through life doing as they like formulating conclusions in their mind; he also sees that, in most cases, whenever this side encounters some obstacle, the individuals attempt to overcome and find a better solution, attempt to progress their ways and means for finding truth, for living; although, it doesn't seem that they are obeying some authority's orders to impede or punish those who disagree, rather, this side of the population takes into account the information presented by opposition, and attempts to incorporate it into their endeavors thereby gaining a more complete understanding of reality and making decisions which progress and improve them...

the psychiatrist concludes that those who are not anxiously seeking revenge on those who disagree with them are making good, healthy decisions about their life

the psychiatrist also concludes that those who are anxiously seeking revenge or to punish the ones who disobey the voice coming from their head are not making decisions which help them along their stated path and such individuals are simply harming themselves by making decisions to exert energy on activities that are not conducive to progressive living, he feels their anxiety is a detriment to their mental and emotional health and prescribes them paroxetine.

take two of these and call me in the morning,



; )

please, grin with me, i'm trying to be somewhat humorous here...muah!*!

6:08 PM

Blogger The MetaKong said...

i forgot to add that the strictly obedient are not only willing to die for the commands of their higher authority, they're willing to kill; which, would normally land someone in the mental institution...fortunately, we don't send the strictly obedient religious ones to mental institutions, i'm grateful we're more accepting and tolerant than that...

however, i do think it's unfortunate that most of us lazily allow the obedient to punish those who disagree through things like imprisonment; it's a shame we serve as enablers for this neurotic and unjust behavior...

6:17 PM

Blogger AndyT13 said...

I wish I wrote this:

Who Is Credible to Me?

Many of your comments suggest that there are plenty of credible scientists on the topic of Intelligent Design and evolution. Some people asked who I would consider credible.

Let me point out, by way of background, that all of the intelligence agencies of every major country believed Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. That was based on lots of data that all pointed in the same direction. It's probably safe to say that those agencies had a preconcieved notion that Saddam had WMD, and so they saw all of the data as consistent with that view.

Further, let me point out that there are 17,000 mutual funds being managed by highly qualified financial experts. They'll tell you that investing in a managed mutual fund is a better idea than buying an index fund. But on average, managed funds underperform the indexes, and you would have no way of knowing which ones won't. Each of those financial experts has a financial incentive to mislead you about the odds.

I would consider credible anyone who didn't have a preconcieved notion or a financial/career incentive. When you're talking about the cause of life itself, I submit that no one can pass that test (especially people who write books on the topic). That has been my point all along.

It's not enough to understand what the experts tell you. You also need to understand cognitive dissonance to understand how the experts and even you could be completely wrong about something that seems so completely true.

Now how many of you read what I just wrote and interpreted it as a defense of Intelligent Design or an attack on Darwinian evolution? If you experienced either of those feelings, you had a little taste of cognitive dissonance.

11:35 PM

Blogger AndyT13 said...

I feel I should apologize because I was so hot to add that tidbit to the 'debate' over ID and evolution but really it doesn't pertain so much to this post. It really belonged in "Christian Nonsense about Evolution and the Bible". Anyway, as usual, brilliant post LG. Drinks are on me. Got a towel?

11:51 PM

Blogger The MetaKong said...

In a much earlier post I commented that I was falling in love with LG but was not willing to have his babies...that still holds true...good post LG...

andyt...i've appreciated your insight much more than most recently, and, no, i did not perceive your post as an attack/defense post; i perceived it as an attempt to explain the fact that everyone experiences perceptual differences to varying degrees depending on their internal motivation....

i was, after all, a psych major before the christians threw me out...and that is where my emotional outbursts in my posts come from - the fact that people who can't even consistently adhere to their "belief" structure are using any ways and means to justify the "belief" that they are somehow better than everybody else and their "beliefs"

btw...andyt...you inspired me...

well, at least you inspired me to find the web site


the home of Flying Spaghetti Monsterism...

which reminds me...I received a divine revelation!!!

for Book One of The Pastafarian Revelations, go to:


peace n whatnot,

Fresh Parmesan,
Al Fraydoe's first prophet

5:19 AM

Blogger Craig said...

Unless your cousin was in graduate school in 1939 at Berkeley, the story did not happen to a classmate of his. The actual person involved was George Bernard Dantzig, a doctoral candidate at UC Berkeley.


9:40 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

LG's summary of why science should not be mistaken for truth is correct and of course well known to many of us, it is however an important reminder to each of us.

I do think it's worth pointing out though, that science can tell us that something (a model) is false.

For example, I think it is accepted that Newton's model of the universe with it's universal time is false, assuming one is willing to accept that the physical world exists at all (ie, assuming one is not a solopsist) and one is willing to place some confidence if ones senses, limited though they may be as LG has pointed out.

So far as intelligent design is concerned, many of it's advocates claim that some observations of the physical world are at stark variance with what an evolutionary model would lead one to expect.

There are several ways that one may respond to these claims, here are five:

1. The claims are untrue, no such observations exist, it is a gross misinterpretaion of observed data.
2. The claims are untrue, the observations though legitimate, are not sufficiently at variance to justfiy the model being questioned.
3. The claims are true, but are due to the model being innacurate and therefore the observations are not of themselves, sufficient grounds for rejecting the model.
4. The claims are true, the model is demonstrably false and a new model needs to be considered.
5. The claims are irrelevant, those who insist they are relevant are unworthy of serious consideration.

The question of how we decide which response to take is what this debate is all about.


11:06 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

For those who find themselves unwilling to respond with option 5; I'd like recommend this short article on the public educational issues involved:


Meyer was testifying before the Ohio state board and this article captures his position; for more about Meyer simply visit here:


In addition I assume that "Language Guy" would be interested in what John Angus Campbell has to say (Meyer's co-author on Darwinism and Design).

Campbell has written extensively on the rhetoric of science, and is the recipient of numerous academic awards.


12:10 PM

Blogger Mr K said...

I'm kind of amused that I'm in third year of a master in mathematics and they still haven't mentioned godel, although I do know of him. I guess most mathematicians like to pretend that he doesn' exist. Still, I'm pretty sure he concluded that it probably didn't matter and mathematics probably does work.

1:20 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Mr k, I think the main point one ought to make about goedel is the one I made, namely about the limits of knowledge. Mathematicians must assume mathematics works. What else are they to do?

1:38 PM


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